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Profile: Rory Stewart

One of 25 hand picked for the Foreign Office fast track, Rory Stewart quit after five years to go wa

Early life

Stewart was born in Hong Kong in 1973. His father Brian, a military man had fought on the beaches of Normandy and then became a diplomat, while his mother Sally, is an academic and economist. He has two older half sisters and one younger sister.

At eight he came to the UK where he was educated at Eton and Oxford, with a stint in the Black Watch in between.

While in his third year Stewart was ‘half talked into’ applying for the Foreign Office (FC0) by his mother. Despite his reluctance he was one of 25 hand picked to join the coveted FCO career fast track.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

It was September 1995 when Stewart started working at the FO in London. For the first time, he says, he felt like he was actually doing something. “I was living in London,in my own flat, getting to walk across St James’ park in the mornings, going to work in a beautiful building.”

Despite flying around to different embassies and feeling the job was a joy he was starting to get tired. Exhausted from chasing girls, partying and, of course, working, his next move, two years later, was Indonesia.

“Suddenly I was in a suburb on East Java and living with a family, learning Indonesian. Everything about growing up in Malaysia came flooding back to me. I felt fitter, brighter and happier.”

After a couple of months he was put into the embassy in Jakarta, running the economic section. It was shortly after his start that the Asian financial crisis of 1997 hit. “It was very exciting and not too dissimilar to what is happening here now. The experience taught me that experts don’t always know what’s going on.”

Despite everyone saying the economy was going so well, Stewart says he was one of the pessimistic people who predicted the depth of that crisis. “Everyone’s predictions go out of the window. And I believe we’re still there.”

After two years, Stewart was then posted to Montenegro in the wake of the Kosovo campaign. This time he wasn’t a member of a large team but on his own.

“I definitely had one of those moments, where you take a step back and look at what you’re doing and think ‘this is ridiculous!' I was sent as the British representative and I was only 26."

It was prestigious, interesting and his closest boss was in London.

Was he taken seriously though being so young? “I might have had more luck if I was older but at the time I wasn’t conscious of my age being a problem. Everyone was very polite and obviously people did want to be seen to be working with Britain.”

Stewart sees both Indonesia and Montenegro as unusual postings. “They were surreal and almost comical, I had to give the impression obviously that this was all totally natural.”

Walking and books

Once his time in Montenegro was up, Stewart decided to leave. He'd been with the FCO for five years. It was at this point that he began the walk that would lead to his critically acclaimed book, The Places in Between. He had previously taken a two week walk while in Indonesia to Irian Jaya with two friends. This time around it was to last 20 months and he was to be alone for most of it.

Stewart has claimed that he didn’t feel he was cut out for a standard FCO posting and so wanted to just try something new. Stewart says walking is his way to free his mind, to contemplate and learn. Initially Stewart planned to walk around the world, however, plans change and in the late summer of 2000 he headed East from the Turkish-Iranian border.

He began moving across Iran with ‘protection’ but after three months of both suspicion and hospitality he couldn’t get his visa renewed and so moved on to the next country.

It was a journey fraught with difficulties though. He was barred from entering Afghanistan, then Pakistani officials prevented him from entering Baluchistan. He then trekked from Pakistan to India, adopting a local look (a turban, salwar kameez, turban and walking stick) in order to make life easier. Then on to Nepal.

It was by January 2002 that he began his trek across Afghanistan. It was to take him six weeks. The US troops had just invaded and had toppled the Taliban. “I watched how communities worked, how villages interacted with one another. I learnt their customs, rules and codes.” It came to be an invaluable understanding of societies suffering in the aftermath of conflict.

Iraq

In 2003 the invasion of Iraq was about to take place and, supporting the decision, Stewart was keen to get out there and help in any way he could.

He constantly sent emails but was getting no response. “I decided to get a taxi from Jordan to Baghdad, just me and the taxi driver.” He arrived in Baghdad and immediately reported to the Director of Operations who was pleased to see the eager volunteer told him to go home and await instruction.

“I wasn’t completely convinced that anything would come of it.” But it did and in August 2003 Stewart found himself the deputy governor of Maysan province in Southern Iraq, with a population of 850,000 people. He was not yet 30.

“When I returned I basically tried to apply what I’d learnt on my walk. I had learnt how they spoke of government, learnt what power means.” His 20 month trek had put him in an invaluable position. “Knowledge and sensitivity is important in these situations. You’re in someone else’s country and you are there to help. This is something you need to keep reaffirming. You are here temporarily and that it’s their country but also that you have value and importance to them. You need to stress that you both have access to power and resources. And you need to have faith in people, you need to convince people that they have the capacity to change their own life.”

For Stewart, personal relationships were very important. Each governor had a different approach, some completely unlike Stewart’s. “One friend was very legalistic in his approach. He would say ‘this is my budget, this is the paper work, less personal politics’, I think if dealing with a society where state and government have collapsed and you’re working in rural areas then you’re not likely to get far by emphasising an institution and process when what they’ve seen of that has horrified them.”

They were two tough postings; jobs that involved fending off an insurgency, negotiating hostage situations and tribal vendettas but he was aided by the knowledge gained from his walk and his ability to speak Dari and Farsi, no one was better equipped.

Having supported the invasion Stewart now believes that we should leave Iraq as soon as possible.

“As time went on it was clear that Iraq was the wrong war. It was impossible; we weren’t going to make any progress.” A three day siege on his compound, led by a friend, was example of this. As the mortars fell, how did this make him feel? “I think I realised that this was a war, it’s not a personal act, it’s not that he didn’t like me, he just didn’t like the occupation. I still think he was a charming man.”

Afghanistan

In 2006 Stewart found himself back in Afghanistan. He set up the Turquoise Mountain Foundation to work on the regeneration of the historic commercial centre of Kabul, as well as providing jobs.

One of its first tasks was to clear the city of 900 cubic metres of rubbish. Since then the Foundation has gone from one employee to 350. “I spent a long time negotiating with the community to convince them that this was a worthwhile idea; then I had to get the Afghan Government on board.” In this time they have also established the country’s first higher education Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture, with the backing of President Karzai.

The hardest part of the job now is the money that needs to be raised. Lots of it. “This year I’ve had to raise US$22m. Lives and jobs depend on me. There is a great sense of responsibility. At the moment I’m trying to raise $2m and the winter is coming - in a city on the edge of becoming a war zone. In one month I’ve spent $550,000 on repairing 60 buildings.” Stewart hopes that it will all be complete by 2010.

What about Barack Obama’s supposed ideas for Afghanistan? “I’m very excited by Barack. People I know that work with him think he’s a good guy.” His views on Afghanistan are ones that Stewart would like to change though. “It’s a replica of the Bush administration at the moment; it’s the wrong way to look at things. Our relationship shouldn’t be electro shock therapy, there should be more patience.”

Future

Moving away slightly from cultural restoration Stewart is due to take on the role of Professor at Harvard University in January 2009. He will be a professor of human rights – teaching and running an academic faculty as the Director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. What about the Foundation? “I’ll remain executive chairman and Harvard have been good enough to pay for me to keep going out there.”

Is there time to relax? “I don’t get as much time as I’d like. Seeing family is important.” His parents are now in their 80s and settled at the family home in Crieff, Scotland. “Three weeks ago I went to northern Spain from New York. I had eight days free and I went along the Pilgrims route from Astorga to Compostella doing about 25 miles a day. It was the most wonderful opportunity to refresh my mind and have clear thoughts.” For the first time in three years he didn’t pick up a phone or an email.

Not only is there a new job in academia but also the movies. Hollywood has started to speak Stewart’s name and after Brad Pitt bought the rights to his life, Orlando Bloom is due to portray the young ‘adventurer’. Jokingly he says he’d really like Judi Dench to play him.

From diplomat to walker to governor to founder now the inspiration for a movie – it's quite a career for someone who is just 35.

an Sheppard/Alamy
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In the heartlands

What does visiting Wallasey, Pontypridd and Islington North reveal about Labour’s future?

Islington. It’s the idea, as much as the place itself, that the right hates: an enclave of wealthy people who have the temerity to vote against right-wing interests. The real Islington, and Jeremy Corbyn’s patch of it in particular, is not all like that. Although parts of his constituency do resemble the cliché of large townhouses and overpriced flat whites, Labour’s 78-year hold on the seat is founded not on the palatial houses around Highgate Hill but on the constituency’s many council estates.

It’s a place I know well. As a child, Islington North was the place next to the edge of the known world, or, as I would come to call it later in life, Barnet. After going to church in Bow, my mum and I would take the bus through it to choir practice, where I sang until my voice broke, in both senses of the word.

Today, austerity is making Islington North look more like its past. Not the Islington of my teenage years, but of my childhood: grimy streets and growing homelessness. Outside the Archway McDonald’s an elderly woman points out the evidence of last night’s clubbers and tells me that today’s teenagers are less considerate than I was or her grandson is. She’s wrong; I once vomited in that same street. But street-sweeping, particularly at night, has been one of the first things that councils have cut back on under constraints from decreasing local authority budgets.

As for homelessness, that, too, has come full circle. Tony Blair’s government was the first to count the number of people sleeping rough, and by the time Labour left office it had been reduced by two-thirds. In the six years since David Cameron first came to office, the homeless figure in England more than doubled from 1,768 estimated rough sleepers to more than 3,569 today. This is the world that Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters want to fight against. These are the effects of Conservative rule that make Labour activists yearn for an anti-austerity champion.

***

Demolishing the stereotypical views of Islington and elsewhere is vital if we are to understand the currents flowing through ­Labour. This summer, there have been three main characters in the soap opera (or farce) that has played out in the party – the beleaguered leader, Jeremy Corbyn, of Islington North; the leading rebel, Angela Eagle, whose constituency is in Wallasey; and finally, the eventual challenger, Owen Smith of Pontypridd. I visited all their constituencies in a whirlwind week in the hope that it would illuminate the leadership race and the wider challenges for left-wing politics in Britain.

In all three places, the easy assumptions about Corbyn’s appeal were complicated by the facts on the ground, but a common thread united them. Outside the Holloway Road Odeon, I heard it first: “Jeremy is a nice guy, but he’s not a leader.” The trouble was that even those who questioned Corbyn’s leadership had little faith in those challenging him.

On 4 July, during a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Neil Kinnock talked about “the supermarket test”: how people in Tesco or Lidl would say “I want to vote Labour, but I can’t vote for Ed Miliband”. He urged Labour’s representatives in the Houses of Parliament to “apply the supermarket test for Jeremy Corbyn and see what answer you get”.

In reality, they had been applying it for months. That was the spur to the attempts in late June to oust Corbyn as Labour leader. For the 172 MPs who said they had no confidence in him – and the 41 per cent of Labour members who told YouGov that they thought Corbyn was doing either “fairly badly” or “very badly” – he is an obstacle on the road to saving Britain from the Tories. Idealism didn’t create a minimum wage, set up Sure Start centres, or bring in civil partnerships: assembling a broad enough coalition to elect a Labour government did.

The minority of MPs who support him, and the thousands of members who say they will vote for him again, feel differently. For them, Corbyn’s demise would feel like a capitulation. It would feel like ­accepting that neoliberalism, capitalism and austerity have won the day, that the role of the Labour Party is to ameliorate rather than oppose them.

When I visited Islington North, Labour’s leadership election was only just starting to get under way and Angela Eagle was still in contention. Her tough performances deputising for the leader at PMQs have made her popular at Westminster but that enthusiasm has not made it as far north as Islington. “To me, I can’t see Angela Eagle as a prime minister either,” said Mike, one of the regulars at the Coronet, a Wetherspoons on the Holloway Road. “What are they running her for?”

The same sentiment prevailed in Wallasey, the Wirral constituency that Eagle has represented since 1992. There, too, were a few pockets of Corbynmania. There was also a sense that Labour is heading for defeat as long as Corbyn remains in place – but little faith in Eagle’s ability to alter that trajectory.

Wallasey is of less long-standing Labour vintage than Islington North. It remained steadfastly Conservative even between 1945 and 1966, and Eagle first won the seat in 1992. Although she is now in possession of a 16,000-vote majority, her neighbour Margaret Greenwood took Wirral West seat back from the Conservatives by a margin of only 400 votes. Tory strategists still eye the Wirral hungrily.

Wallasey is home to New Brighton, the seaside resort commemorated in Martin Parr’s 1985 series The Last Resort. A popular tourist destination for most of the first half of the 20th century, New Brighton was hurt by tidal changes in the River Mersey, which stripped most of its sand, and by the closure of its pier, but it remains a favoured destination for retirees and day trippers. In times past, Liverpool families that did well for themselves crossed the Mersey, bought a home – and promptly started to vote Tory. Wallasey, and the Wirral as a whole, is still where Scousers who have made it good set up their homes, but nowadays their politics usually survives the river crossing unscathed.

Yet there is still a vestigial sympathy for Conservatism in the leafier parts of Victoria Road and Seabank Road, one that is largely absent from Islington North. Perhaps Theresa May’s diligence in dealing with families affected by the Hillsborough disaster, which was mentioned frequently when I asked people for their opinion of the new Prime Minister, is sufficiently well regarded here that it is beginning to erode the Thatcherite taint still hanging over the Tory rosette on Merseyside.

However, it is not just Labour politics that is proving increasingly capable of weathering the journey across the Mersey. In Westminster, the chatter is that Militant – driven out of Labour in the 1980s, though most of its members continued to live and work on Merseyside – is back as a force in the city’s constituencies, and that many of its members have moved out and retired to New Brighton. Their influence is blamed for the series of damaging stories that slipped out of Wallasey in the days after Eagle declared her candidacy.

“There’s a reason why they’re so good at getting themselves on the national news and in the papers,” one MP tells me. “It’s that they’ve done all this before.”

***

The perception that Eagle “lost control” of her local party, as well as a disastrous campaign launch, led to support from fellow MPs ebbing away from her. It went instead to Owen Smith, the MP for Pontypridd, a little-known figure outside Westminster, but one who has long been talked of as a possible Labour leader inside it.

Smith’s great strength, at least according to some of his backers, is that he is a blank canvas. Certainly, as with Corbyn in Islington, there was a widespread perception in Wallasey that Eagle was not cast from the material from which leaders are made. Smith at least had the advantage of introducing himself to voters on his own terms.

His slim hopes of defeating Corbyn rest on two planks. First, the idea that a fresh face might yet convince wavering members that he could win a general election. A vote for him rather than Corbyn can therefore be seen as a vote against the Conservatives. Second, he is willing to call for a second European referendum. Among Labour Party activists, who backed staying in the European Union by 90/10 per cent, that is a compelling offer.

In Islington and Wallasey, both of which voted Remain (and both of which still have  houses flying the flag of the European Union when I visit), that message also has wider appeal. But in Smith’s own seat, a second referendum is a tougher sell. The Valleys voted to leave by a near-identical margin to the country at large. No one to whom I spoke was enthused about replaying the referendum.

Smith’s status as a “blank slate” will only be useful if he manages to write something appealing on it over the course of this summer. It is also possible he could just remain largely unknown and undefined.

Travelling around the country, I became accustomed to explaining who he is. Even at my hotel in Cardiff, which borders his constituency, the name “Owen Smith” was met with blank looks.

Unfortunately, the habit proved hard to break once I was in Pontypridd, resulting in an awkward scene in the back of a taxi. “I know who my MP is,” my driver said angrily, before launching into a lengthy diatribe about the arrogance of London-based journalists and a London-led Labour Party. The accent had changed, the setting was more confrontational, but the story remained the same as in Islington and Wallasey: he was convinced of neither Jeremy Corbyn’s nor Angela Eagle’s ability to fight and win an election. “That voice? In a room with Putin?” he said of Eagle. Then he said something unexpected. “But I’ll tell you what – they need a change from Jeremy Corbyn – and why not Owen Smith?”

“Why not Owen Smith?” As much as they might wish to deny it, that is the message with which Corbyn’s critics will try to take back control of the Labour Party. It is a message that feels unlikely to move or inspire. As I catch the train back to London, I reflect that those who want to convince Labour activists to give up Jeremy Corbyn – and what they feel he represents – need to offer them something compelling in return. No one puts “Vote for the lesser of two evils” on a banner.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue